Speaking of Dolls: Do you know Billi?

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Close up of face of 7-inch plaster Billiken statue.

In Missouri in 1908, art teacher and illustrator Florence Pretz had a dream. In this dream, she imagined magical creatures in mystical forms. When asked about the creatures that we see illustrated in her children’s books, Florence stated that some may have been influenced by her fascination with ancient Asian beliefs and deities. In October of 1908, Florence applied for a patent for one of her “designs for an image.” This image later became the rotund little character we know as a Billiken.

Facts are sketchy about the origin of the name Billiken. It could have come from a poem by Canadian poet, Bliss Carman or it could have been the name given to the image by the Billiken Company of Chicago who bought the rights to manufacture products based on the image in 1909.

Whether the company bought the rights because of the name or whether they assigned the name to Florence’s image after buying the rights is unknown, but the little creature was an instant hit. Billiken merchandise included soap, belt buckles, jewelry, statues, tins, candy, banks, salt and pepper shakers, hood ornaments for cars, bottles, silverware, bookends, paper weights and much more.

In 1909 Solomon Hoffman created a “Can’t Break ’Em” composition material for doll making. In that same year, Horsman copyrighted a doll with a Billiken head. Using the new composition material, the Billiken doll was created and became the Horsman Doll Company’s first big success.

There are several reasons that might explain the success of the Billiken in its many forms. In the early part of the 20th century, a movement called the New Thought Movement was very popular in the U. S. This movement stressed positive thinking, good things will happen to those who live right, unconditional love, luck to those who believe and happiness. Billiken was marketed as a good luck item. Slogans associated with Billiken were “the god of things as they ought to be” and “tickle my toes and see me smile.” Poems accompanied the merchandise such as:

“I am the God of Happiness
I simply make you smile
I prove that life’s worth living
And that anything’s worth while
I force failure to his feet
And make the growler grin,
I’m the God of Happiness
My name is Billiken.”

This “don’t worry, be happy” attitude was exactly the feeling the New Thought Movement was expressing and the Billiken’s success shows that it was also the attitude shared by many of the period.

The Horsman Doll Company had another reason to introduce the Billiken in doll form to the market place. The Teddy bear, named for the former President Theodore Roosevelt, had been a toy success story. A toy associated with the new president, William Howard Taft, might also be a money maker. In July of 1909, the Billiken doll hit store shelves. He was an elf-like creature with pointed ears, a smile that stretched from ear to ear and a tuft of painted hair on top if his pointed head. The early dolls had plush bodies of mohair similar to Teddy bear bodies. They had short arms and short legs with very large feet. The heads were made of “can’t break ’em” composition and the arms and feet had felt soles.

Bodies varied slightly and a few can be found with muslin bodies dressed in baggy overalls or bodies made of pink or blue sateen. They came in 12 inches, 15 inches and 25 inches. Rarely a Billiken with a wig can be found. This variation was called Sister Billiken and came dressed in a kimono.

Like so many fads, interest in the very odd little Billiken character soon faded away. By 1912, doll production had all but stopped. Good luck amulets continued to be sold but their popularity was waning. Ironically, an area that continued to create the Billiken good luck pieces for some years was Alaska where many were carved from ivory and sold as tourist good luck souvenirs. During the 1980s, Horsman reintroduced a Billiken with a hard plastic head and synthetic mohair body. It was met with very limited success and soon disappeared from the shelves.

The Billiken was in the right place at the right time.  People embraced his carefree and positive attitude toward life. Maybe it is time to introduce another Billiken?

I’m Billiken whose lucky grin
Makes gloom run out and joy run in . . . .

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The prices listed have been gathered from doll shows, auctions, Internet sales and individual sales from the past 60 days. Price will vary from region to region because of interest and economic conditions.

15-inch Billiken, mohair body, very good condition $400

6-inch plaster Billiken statue, good condition $45

12-inch Bru Jne, all original condition $15,000

18-inch glazed French fashion with glass eyes, redressed appropriately $1,800

22-inch blond china with exposed ears, original body and leather limbs $265

7-inch Simon Halbig Little Women doll house doll, original wig, no clothes $235

8-inch all bisque character, jt. at shoulders and hips, glass eyes, unmarked $525

32-inch Kestner 214, redressed, original body finish and wig $850

24-inch Kestner 164, redressed, original body finish, replaced wig $475

7-inch black Ruth Gibbs china, all original $150

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More Images:

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Billiken bank, 10 inches tall.
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Plaster Billiken statue, 7 inches tall.
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Billiken doll with plush mohair body, 15 inches tall.

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